According to Ashley Dawson in Extreme Cities, the field of battle in the fight against climate change is urban, and the enemy is capitalism. Her argument is convincing.
Dawson looks at specific situations in cities around the world, but really makes it stick right here in the U.S., in New Orleans and New York. Using hurricanes Katrina and Sandy as manifestations of climate change, she shows how traditional approaches to protecting coastal areas are miserably inadequate and how the defining impulse of capitalism – constant growth – sharply increases the danger. As ever higher seawalls are built, sea levels and storm sizes are also growing. The false sense of security, however, coupled with the compulsive development of coastal land, means that even more people will move into the vulnerable areas. Further, in times of crisis, the wealthy have the means to simply retreat to safety, while the poor have nowhere to go and inevitably bear the brunt of the disaster. Going into great detail about the rebuilding efforts after Sandy hit New York, Dawson shows how the entire recovery system is bent in several ways towards rewarding those at the top of the capitalist food chain – and making the lower classes pay for it.
We certainly need technology and planning to help adapt to the coming climate chaos, but under present social conditions, these tools are more likely to be employed by elites to create architectures of apartheid and exclusionary zones of refuge.
The city, being the real center of human civilization for the last century or so, is both the center of capital and makes the largest dent on the environment, though most climate change studies focus heavily on rural or wilderness areas. So Extreme Cities is timely and needed.
The solutions Dawson poses are pretty radical, but they match the direness of the situation. She suggests ideas like strategic retreat from certain cities (or parts of cities) that can’t possibly be saved, popular revolution to wrest control of energy production away from the short-sighted fossil industry, and, something we can probably all get behind right now, wealth redistribution. It’s a lot to take in, like hearing your mechanic say you need a whole new engine, but it sounds like tough love. If we’re willing to give up a measure of convenience and a mountain of hoarded wealth for the sake of our children and grand children, love is exactly what it is.
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